Last fall, the Chicago Wolves were fresh off winning the 2008 Calder Cup, but due to numerous personnel changes, there were many doubts about whether they were capable of making the playoffs, nevermind repeating as champions.
Indeed they did not make the playoffs, and questions remain about what the team is capable of this year. But there is hope for at least a return to the playoffs. The Wolves lost several key players from last season to Europe and might lose a few more due to promotions to the Atlanta Thrashers. However, there are some faces, both old and new, who could make it a very interesting season.
With Joe Motzko and Jeff Hamilton off to Europe, the Wolves will be without their top two leading scorers from last season. Motzko lead the team in goals and points with 29 goals and 56 points and Hamilton was the only player to score more than a point a game with 53 in 50 games.
A trio of players will be counted on to pick up the slack, including 2007-08 team MVP and AHL MVP Jason Krog, junior star Angelo Esposito and 27-year-old Illinois native Tim Stapleton.
After spending last season with the Vancouver Canucks and their AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose, Krog returns to the organization. The veteran will try to pick up where he left off two years ago in Chicago and challenge for the league scoring title again.
Twenty-year-old Esposito will also be expected to provide scoring. Last season, despite having his fourth and final season in the QMJHL marred by injury, Esposito posted a respectable 24 goals, 18 assists and 42 points in 35 games. Esposito will try to make a smooth transition to the professional ranks, translating his offense.
Stapleton was traded to the Thrashers over the summer. He lead the Toronto Marlies last season with 28 goals, 51 assists and 79 points in 70 games, and together with Krog, gives the Wolves two players who previously led their AHL teams in scoring.
Machacek made his pro debut last season as a 19-year-old and performed admirably, finishing second on the team in goalscoring with 23 and third in points with 48. Fellow rookie Holzapfel did not post as strong of numbers, with 13 goals, 19 assists for 32 points. Both players should continue to improve this year, as they get stronger and gain more experience.
Rounding out the forward ranks are AHL veterans Kevin Doell, Matt Anderson and Joey Crabb, as well as Brett Sterling, who sits third in all-time goal scoring for the Wolves. Certainly a motivated Sterling can produce a lot of points.
This fall, the talk around the Wolves defense is not centered on a young up and coming stud defenseman, but rather a guy who was drafted before most of the Wolves players were even born. Chris Chelios, who was drafted in 1981, was not invited to any NHL training camps, but was offered a contract by the Wolves in early Sepember. He has not made any decision yet, but he has made it clear he still has the desire and the conditioning to keep playing. If an NHL team doesn’t come calling, look for Chelios to return to Chicago, this time with the Wolves.
Even without Chelios, the Wolves will have a blueline with some NHL experience, with the addition of journeyman Steve McCarthy. He has over 300 NHL games played. Nathan Oystrick and Brian Sipotz will also return.
The Thrashers defensive prospects will include Arturs Kulda, Grant Lewis and Paul Postma. For Kulda and Lewis, their 2008-09 seasons were marred by injuries and both come into this season with something to prove. Once injuries hit, they should both get looks with the Thrashers. Postma is coming off his final year of junior and led all WHL defensemen in scoring with an impressive 84 points in 70 games on the powerhouse Calgary Hitmen. As the smooth-skating blueliner enters his rookie season as a pro, he should continue to play an offensive game while learning to be responsible defensively.
Where the Wolves starter from 2008-09, Ondrej Pavelec, plays this season will depend on the health of Thrashers injury-prone starter Kari Lehtonen. Returning from off-season back surgery, Lehtonen again won’t be ready when the season starts on Oct. 3.
Last season, Pavelec started in 40 games for the Wolves and had a 18-20-2 record with a 2.58 GAA and a .914 save percentage. He saw action in 12 games with the Thrashers, but didn’t fare that well statistically.
This fall, while Pavelec begins in Atlanta, Drew MacIntyre and Peter Mannino will mind the twine. Spending last season with the Milwaukee Admirals, MacIntyre lead all AHL goaltenders with 34 wins, posting a 2.30 GAA and .921 save percentage. He is a capable AHL goaltender who will probably not lead the AHL in wins again, but should post a respectable record.
Coming over from the New York Islanders, Mannino played last season with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. As a rookie, he had a 17-12-2 record and a 2.94 GAA and .900 save percentage. He will probably fill the backup role for the Wolves.